Reviewing the canons of yesterday

The contemporaneity blew the whistle on the ethnocentrism and patriarchy of the history of art and the art system. The cultural hegemony of the west was questioned with the continual revision of criteria, agents and models that prevailed until the 60s/70s. The feminist struggle was probably the one which demanded the most – or the one that made itself heard like no other, even though that was a long process – a new history of art which would not dismiss other visions and artists. Linda Nochlin released the quite popular article Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (1971) which emphasized the need for further discussions and theories which could update art history. Simultaneously, the Black Panther Party echoes words of action against the brutal treatment that Afro-Americans endured in the hands of security force. Emory Douglas was perhaps the most prolific artist of the armed political movement. The LGBT movements smashed barriers, endorsed by artists who belonged to this community, even though sparsely. It didn’t take long until the standpoint of the other started to have a decisive role in the theory, critic and writings of Art, History and Art History.

But the globalization, and against its homogenizing mission, would flare new struggles in the artistic realm. Other geographies would end up claiming their own space in global history, beyond any western canon that was imposed externally – or, in the worst case scenario, forcibly. In this context, the colonialist diktats were lacking an urgent review: a work or an artefact of an African, aboriginal or Asian country could no longer be understood under the light of a western schemata (a perspective contested by some, however), disposed of specific geographical conditions of that region. Diktats that can be interpreted under the light of the criticism of the aforementioned canons.

The contemporary era is therefore made of multiple voices and struggles, each within a specific space, geography and temporality, without having the urge to overlap values and ideas and ideals or establish a hegemony of perspectives. The greatest achievement of modernity is therefore a polysemy which allows everyone to have a place, a voice, no matter how idiosyncratic they are. It is a time of coexisting clashes, of plurality and differentiation.

Grada Kilomba is a Portuguese artist, with African roots, living and working in Germany, and is part of a generation whose work is conducted beyond any geopolitical boundaries, without neglecting the intrinsic complexity of reality and the singularity of different peoples, cultures and countries. In this perspective, her work is somehow a mirror of everything that this article has said: the work of a black woman artist, politician and writer, with a multidisciplinary activity that goes beyond any sort of convention.

In the presentation of her exhibition Secrets To Tell, at MAAT, the artist asked: “Who belongs to the national canon?”. A suggestive question of a career that constitutes itself in questions, and relies on the act of raising doubts as an engine for clarification and discernment. Who belongs to the national canon, who establishes and designates such things? In recent times, figures who regarded their own selves as canonical and consensual in the world of literature and history, worthy of a street statue and toponymy, saw their feats being questioned. That Eurocentric view, vaguely eugenicist, snubbed the point of view of others, the other’s perspective of the worldly issues. Father António Vieira was a settler; a statue in his name would be the deification of everything that happens to be related to colonization, the commodification of slaves and the violence to which they were subdued.

Yet another question raised by the work of Grada Kilomba: where did modernity start – this modernity of cafes, cosmopolitan pleasures, halls? From early on it is instilled in us that this notion was born in Europe. But where did the raw materials like coffee and chocolate, sugar and cinnamon, all these condiments that inebriated spirits and provided verve to their intellects and erudition? A mound of earth, in the centre of the pristine and immaculate Project Room gallery of MAAT, emerges from the floor with other tiny mounds made of these aromatic refinements. The earth is the mother of such small pleasures, which, in turn, is an omnipresent element of Africa. Surrounding this composition, candles. Candles to burn, candles to light a lamp that was never materialized in us: one that, perhaps, and like the artist mentions, points to the idea that modernity was born in this great and fertile continent that is Africa and not in Europe.

At the same time, yet another candle flickers in an altar nearby. There is always something religious or spiritual in this retelling of facts – a magical force that gathers times, retrieves memories, speaks the truth. The image of a slave named Anastasia changes the shape of historiography, albeit with some fiction: in a personal undertone, the story creates itself from an individual point of view, in this case a black woman who was gagged in the 18th century and remained in the imagination of the resistance of many generations. Grada Kilomba edifies a proper place of worship in her honour, in a supposedly laic museum.

It is curious to notice how this exhibition swings with another, held at Galeria Avenida da Índia, entitled The Most Beautiful Language. Both exhibitions are political manifestos, without having in this a restrictor of the inexhaustible inspiration of works of art, however, if in Secrets to tell the museography enwraps us in the shadows of the secrets yet to be revealed, the former is flooded with the sunlight that comes through the gallery’s windows, which works as a sort of a counterweight. Here the word is solar, belligerent, sonorous, visible, to the point that in Printed Room (2017) a room is covered with pages written by readers of the book Plantation Memories, by Kilomba and, in the adjoining space, incomprehension, rebellion and critical sentences are painted on the wall, giving voice to those whose ancestors were deprived of freedom and a full-fledged existence (The Chorus, 2017).

Secrets to Tell, with the curatorship of Inês Grosso, can be visited until February 5 at MAAT and The Most Beautiful Language is present at Galeria Avenida da Índia, until March 4, curated by Gabi Ngcobo.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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